Exploring New Frontiers at the ACS Spring 2019 National Meeting & Exposition - ACS Axial
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Exploring New Frontiers at the ACS Spring 2019 National Meeting & Exposition

I was delighted to receive a grant from ACS Publications to attend the ACS Spring 2019 National Meeting & Exposition in Orlando.  As a librarian working in the United Kingdom, this was the largest conference I had ever attended, with over 15,000 delegates and almost 13,000 oral and poster presentations on a wide range of chemistry-related topics. I realized that in a single day it would be possible to attend up to 16 talks, plus a poster session in the evening, so a strategic approach was needed!

I made good use of the app to identify the sessions I wanted to attend and took care to read through the abstracts, often identifying useful talks from specialists outside my field. Although I had made some selections in advance of the conference, the size and flexibility of the national meeting meant I was also able to pursue the interesting research areas I discovered during the event. I also appreciated the availability of continuing professional development sessions and attended useful talks on improving scientific communication skills, and on interviewing successfully.

The theme for the Orlando meeting was “Chemistry for New Frontiers.” With the meeting venue being so close to the Kennedy Space Center, many of the symposia embraced space-related topics. I attended a fascinating session on “Food for space travel and extreme environments,” with speakers discussing how to produce palatable, nutritious food for lengthy journeys in space. We heard about the military’s research into maintaining nutrient levels in stored food; about NASA’s current work on growing plants on the space station, where there have been recent successes in growing lettuces and zinnia, with plans to grow tomatoes and peppers during 2020; and longer-term goals such as 3D-printing food during a space mission.

Samuel Kounaves also took a space theme for his Kavli Foundation lecture, summarizing how analysis of chemical components found on other planets and moons could be used to detect life. Kounaves shared some of the complexities of this research, how unexpected factors could mask the presence of organic matter, and future plans to try to detect substances such as amino acids and lipids on Mars and on the moons Europa and Enceladus. Trisha Andrew also gave a Kavli Foundation lecture, describing her work on developing “smart garments,” which incorporate light-weight polymers into the threads of clothing. These enable the recording of biometrics without requiring additional uncomfortable additional sensors.

Like many librarians, my role is shifting away from traditional “books and journals” librarianship and towards enhancing learning and teaching at our institution. To help update my knowledge in this area, I attended some of the sessions offered by the Chemical Education Division. I was particularly interested in hearing about changes to the format of courses, with professors now delivering material via blended or online learning, allowing face-to-face classes to become more focused on discussion and problem-solving.

Student feedback on changes to class delivery was often very positive, but many of the speakers were finding that their alterations did not always lead to an improvement in exam marks, or that the change in format seemed to only help some groups of students.  Some thought there may have been a novelty factor involved with students giving positive feedback because the course was different from their other courses, rather than because they were actually learning more. It was thought-provoking to consider whether grades are all that matters at the end of a course – if students are more engaged and enjoy the course more, is this equally as valuable as an increase in their exam marks?

Practical examples of how to incorporate art into the chemistry curriculum were presented in “Bridging the divide: relating chemistry to biology and the humanities.” Some of the speakers at this symposium spoke about how their own attendance at courses organized by the Chemistry Collaborations, Workshops and Communities of Scholars project had enabled them to transform their curricula, incorporating practical art workshops and using these to explain chemistry with real-world examples. This demonstrated the lasting impact of investment in the professional development of educators. For example, a high school teacher showed students how to produce pigments and mix paints.  The students then painted with these and analyzed the photoluminescence from their paintings, determining which pigments had been used to produce each color.

A similar analysis was carried out by university students looking paintings in an art gallery, using x-ray fluorescence to analyze the pigments used in this artwork, and adding meaningful data about chemical compositions to the museum’s catalog.

A Chemical Informatics Division symposium on assessing chemical outreach described projects designed to engage the public with chemistry, but also discussed the difficulty in measuring the impact of such schemes.  One speaker wondered whether we should be so focused on trying to find a link between a short science outreach session and the long-term behavior of the attendees: Does this focus overlook the impact on the scientists and volunteers, who enjoy this work and are able to develop their skills in communicating their research outside of their peer group?  Whether we are assessing the correct things when we focus only on exam marks or expect a short fun event to have a transformational impact on an attendees’ life goals, is definitely something I will be reflecting on after this meeting.

I’d like to thank ACS Publications for their generosity in funding my attendance at the ACS National Meeting, Michael Qiu for his hospitality, and my fellow grant recipients Tim Berge and Emily Hart for their great company during the meeting.

Kirsty Thomson is the Academic Support and Liaison Librarian for Engineering and Physical Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, U.K.

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